Scenes from The City
Substance
The script tells a story of a Chris and Clair, a 40-year old married couple, Jenny, their 30-year old neighbour, and Girl, their 9 or 10 year old daughter. Following our explorations of different aspects of the characters and their dynamics across the plot, we developed the play around the power conflicts of the urban household and the repressed traumas that live under the surface of the shallow, giddy optimism that tends to characterise modern city life.
Martin Crimp wrote this play using various daily objects, actions and phrases that become emotionally loaded through their repeated usage by characters in related moments of repression and displacement of insecurities, discomforts, and aggressions across the plot. The narrative proceeds through the emotional language of these symbols, woven into winding monologues that hint at the deeper traumas of each of the characters through context. These everyday domestic objects – a teddy bear, a piano, a diary, newspapers, a nurse uniform to name a few – were crucial to the vocabulary of the play.
Form
The physical form of the play stemmed from the aesthetic of suffocation in urban spaces, while the form of the substance drew from the emotional language of the images repeated across the script. I devised the structure of the play as a whole by tying together fragments from different scenes of the play, bringing together moments that utilised the same symbols – thus using the poetics of absurdism by merging events from different points in time to create continuity in the viewpoints into the characters’ emotional lives.
Further, I created the audience viewpoint into the female characters of the play through the violence of Chris’ male gaze by positioning his couch within the audience itself and presenting the action of the play through the reactions on Clair’s, Jenny’s and Girl’s faces while interacting with him, and their dynamic relationships with objects and spaces across the stage.
Using discomfort as an aesthetic device, I packed the entire room with audience seating, sparing only 2 narrow aisles in the middle of the room at sharp right angles to each other to be used as the stage. Wings were built in the middle of the audience to have characters emerge and disappear into the middle of the room itself. The uncomfortable closeness between the audience and the play completed the aesthetic of urban space we were going for.
Tone
The aesthetic of patient discomfort might be the best way to describe the tone of the play. We built this aesthetic through the nature of the interactions between Chris, the patriarch of the household, and Clair, Jenny and Girl, the women surrounding him.
My intention with this aesthetic was two-fold: I wanted to capture the feeling of suffocation characteristic to the space of urban households, and I wanted to create a viewpoint into how feminine identity is expressed through moments of friction with projections of masculine identity in urban spaces – and how it is at odds with its deeper, truer nature.
Given the pinter-esque nature of the play, the characters’ emotional life was portrayed in 2 layers – a deeper level of trauma and tragedy contained in the monologues and sudden outbursts of emotion, which was brutally submersed under a more superficial level of pleasantry and casual small talk between the characters; expressed in abrupt smiles, uncomfortably timed pauses and lingering presences.
Project details
Time
Jun – Aug 2021
Team
The cast consisted of 4 actors: Palak Bhandari, Hursh Sethiya, Shreya Aiyer and Sumiran Kasturi; and 2 ADs: Anagha Menon and Riya Dhingra.
Script
The City by Martin Crimp
Themes
Absurdism / improvisational theatre / aesthetics of immersive theatre
Process
We put together this play in a series of disjuncted layers of its form.
Pre-production
I developed a concept for each character from an analysis of their monologues and the symbols used as repressions of different traumas.
Character work
On the basis of the pre-production analysis, I worked with actors to develop the basic conscious and unconscious attitudes associated with their characters.
Relationship work
After establishing the basic characters, we worked on the dialogue portions between the monologues which contained the unfolding events of the plot, and developed a minimum version of the play in a very limited physical space. This was the most important phase in absorbing the theme of power conflicts that underscored the scenes.
Consolidating the play world
I extended the minimum version we had developed towards the aesthetic perspective that we had discovered, and developed the concept for the play world and the stage around this perspective.
Structure
Finally, we picked and chose different fragments of the script to create a structure for the play that suited the narrative that worked for the emotions and dynamics that we had built.
Reflection
This project was very flawed and very real to me for a number of reasons. As the first stage play that I directed, watching the play on the final day was a joltingly helpless experience. It taught me a lot about theatre – about the mechanics of the stage, of actors, and of my own role as a director. Firstly, I learnt that the final day isn’t the maximum version of the play but the minimum version, and actors fall to their natural impulse of doing what they think the play needs them to do. I learnt, therefore, that my role through playmaking isn’t to discover an idealised version of what the play needs to be, but to internalise within an actor a voice of the play which naturally guides them to what they need to be doing. I learnt that on the final day, my perspective is meaningless; it is the play that speaks and I am just another seat in the audience. My failure to understand this was everything that went wrong with this project.
The project went wrong for 2 reasons primarily: first, my fixation with exploring the complications of the script and extracting the entire play from these explorations, and second, my inability to integrate the different elements of the play into a comprehensive whole. I built the characters and the themes of the play in isolations and failed to identify what was missing in the space between them: the narrative device of shock. Thus, the complexities of the characters existed in 2 planes, the first in conversations, the second in monologues, but they failed to build each other up because their form of absurdism fell into a rhythmic predictability that stopped surprising the audience. As the plot opened up and drew the audience further in, the absurdism obscured the plot more than it explained it, presenting the play world as a timeless, static collection of fragments of a city household’s politics.
It is impossible for me to imagine how the play might have appeared to an audience, but it was met with mixed responses; some found relatability in its emotional landscape while others scoffed at its pointlessness. What worked best about the play perhaps was its aesthetic of discomfort contained in its patient, stationery forms and its explosive accusatory monologues.
My takeaways from this play primarily came from my exploration of its themes of middle aged tragedy and urban family which resonated with me very deeply. Further, the vocabularies of claustrophobia and absurdism were interesting explorations. Ultimately, understanding theatre through the dimensions of the aesthetic and physical with a central focus on action really opened up my mind to the possibilities of the art form and helped form the perspective and the interest that I bring to theatre as a designer; the crafting of a specific viewpoint into a particular reality.
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